Bad aggressive female boss talking down to employee
ATD Blog

How to Manage a Difficult Boss

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Interacting with your boss can be a difficult feat for some people. Perhaps you are polar opposites, or maybe you are getting to know your boss a little too well. According to a 2015 Gallup poll, 50 percent of more than 7,000 people surveyed listed a bad boss or supervisor as the number 1 reason why they quit their jobs. While your first instinct may be to jump ship and find a new job, hold back that impulse, says Mary Abbajay, author of Managing Up; you may be able to not just continue on at your current position, but actually thrive in it. In other words, there are things you can do to navigate a difficult boss. We spoke with Abbajay to discuss how.

ATD: Do certain personality styles work better together?

Mary Abbajay
Abbajay: It’s always easier to work for someone more like you—with similar workstyles, communication preferences, and personalities. But with someone really opposite from you, there is potential for disconnect and friction. But this is also where a lot of magic can happen if you can successfully navigate the differences. Creating a more perfect connection in the workplace happens when you learn to adapt, appreciate, and value what the other brings.

ATD: In your book, you list a number of different workplace-style personalities a boss can exemplify: the Advancer, the Energizer, the Evaluator, the Harmonizer, and the Mono or Combo. What are these based on?

Abbajay: These are based on multiple personality preferences, communication styles, and work traits. The truth is people are a blend of many things—nobody is 100 percent of anything all the time. My staff calls me the Introverted, Advancer, Workaholic, Hands-Off, and sometimes Nitpicker boss! People might have a boss they think is only one thing, but bosses are going to have more than one of these styles—so you need to become a boss detective to figure out what type of boss you have. It’s also important to find out what your style is as well so you can see where you and your boss are or are not aligned. This will make it easier for you to figure out how to adapt your behavior to manage up. Remember, we can’t change other people, we can only change how we interact with them!

ATD: You also talk about your boss becoming your friend and how dangerous that can become. How do you draw a line in the sand before you get too close?

Abbajay: You want to be friendly with your boss, but not best friends. This can be a hard line to draw for some bosses. You want to build a relationship with your boss, and sometimes that means sharing about your personal life, but be careful you don’t go too far. This person is your boss, and if they’re too much of your friend it could slap you in the face or work against you when others see you as tight with the boss. You have to keep an ear to the ground to find out what people are saying about you. If people start saying that you’re the boss’ best friend, that’s a sign—you need to pull back a little bit.


ATD: We always hear about the different types of bad bosses, such as the Micromanager, the Incompetent manager—is there one that is harder to manage up than the others?

Abbajay: This is so dependent on your personality and on what you need or want from a boss or what drives you crazy in a boss! In our workshops, we hear the most complaints about the Micromanager or the Incompetent boss. Personally, I love an incompetent boss—it’s my opportunity to shine. For some people, this boss drives them absolutely crazy. They resent doing the boss’ work and not getting the credit or remuneration. While I empathize with this reaction, I also think that perspective can be short-sighted. People in organizations all know who the incompetent people are—which means they also know who the strong players are. The silver lining of an incompetent boss can be an opportunity to enhance your own reputation. Play the long game, not the short game.

How one prefers to be managed is similar to how one likes to manage. In other words, people who are hands-off managers themselves relish working for other hands-off bosses. It’s when we are managed by someone who is opposite us that our hackles often get raised. The key to managing up people who are different than us is to assume positive intent. If you can reframe the micromanager from someone who is out to get you into someone who just needs more information and inclusion, it can be easier to activate appropriate strategies. At the end of the day, one needs to find out how to build trust with their boss.

ATD: Why should people manage up rather than leave?


Abbajay: You should never give up an opportunity to learn from a bad boss, even if you don’t stay long, to learn what effective leadership looks like and what it doesn't look like—these are good life lessons. If you can adapt to different people above you without judgement and with positive intent, you may not get a unicorn boss, but you can learn from them. We talk so much about leadership development in this country, but you have to have the yin and yang—you have to learn how to follow as well. We’ve forgotten it’s the employee’s responsibility, too.

ATD: When should you leave?

Abbajay: Gritting is important, but there is a fine line between gritting and having gritted enough—and that’s a very individual choice. If you have really tried to adapt and find you are spending more time thinking about your boss and how to please them rather than your work, or you are so stressed that it’s impacting your physical and emotional health, then it’s time to leave.

We’ve all had bad bosses; but sometimes, if you can get through the emotions and manage the challenge, you might be able to learn and actually grow from a difficult boss.

About the Author

Formerly the senior content manager at ATD for career development and host of the Accidental Trainer podcast, Lisa Spinelli writes about career development and pathways. She is the editor and main author of Teachers to Trainers (ATD Press) and is working toward her ACC accreditation with the International Coaching Federation as a career and transition coach. Currently, she is director of content strategy at Degreed. Spinelli also volunteers her time outside of work coaching and assisting transitioning military service members and spouses as well as disabled entrepreneurs in their new career paths.

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